Obliterating the academic calendar is the easy part

More money for US community colleges and new thinking on semester lengths must be accompanied by cohesive pathways to degrees, say Karen A. Stout and Tom Shaver

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1 October 2021
Obliterating the academic calendar is just the start for universities if they are to best serve their students
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This spring, President Joe Biden announced his $1.8 trillion (£1.3 trillion) American Families Plan, which includes a once-in-a-lifetime investment in community colleges to make them free for all students. If the president’s proposal becomes law, it will be a major win for college access and will ensure that no student has to drop out in their first two years of college because they cannot afford tuition.

As important as money is to a student’s postsecondary goals, time is another crucial factor in whether students enter and complete college. Two of the most common reasons students drop out of college short of completing a degree are that they were unable to make their studies fit with their need to work and/or their competing family commitments.

Almost a quarter of undergraduates are raising children and nearly two out of three are working while in college. They need courses to be available at the times and in the modalities that fit with their schedules but, far too often, disjointed class schedules that don’t streamline completion force students to give up or postpone the dream of a degree.

So, while free community college might grab most of the headlines, another piece of the American Families Plan could also have a significant impact: a $62 billion grant programme to support student success, retention and completion at institutions that serve large numbers of students from low-income backgrounds.

This proposal comes at a moment when the pandemic is turning HE upside down. We have a clear opportunity to rethink long-standing structures that influence student success, retention and completion − but we must be intentional about what we build in their place.

While there were some inevitable growing pains with remote learning and virtual student services, the pandemic proved that institutions could respond quickly and at scale. Online education and added support allowed many learners to continue, resume or begin their education when they otherwise would not have been able to, and those resources should remain available to learners post-pandemic.

The pandemic also created opportunities for structural innovations that can be adopted more widely. For example, some observers have gone so far as to say that the pandemic is “obliterating” the traditional academic calendar.

Previously, innovating around the academic calendar tended to focus on rethinking how long courses should last. Shorter academic terms, typically eight weeks, present a promising opportunity to meet the needs of today’s learners better than traditional 16-week semesters.

Several Achieving the Dream (ATD) member colleges are demonstrating the success of this approach. For instance, Odessa College in Texas doubled its graduation rate within two years of adopting shorter terms, while Grayson College, also in Texas, increased its rate of students who switched from part- to full-time by 11 per cent in a single year. In fact, shorter terms have been so effective that ATD recently published a guidebook to help other institutions implement shorter terms and promote equity and flexibility for learners.

Shorter terms often require learners to take fewer classes at once to be considered full-time students, which can help them balance work, family and education. And if learners still need to pause their education or don’t succeed on a course, they can jump back in or catch up more quickly the next term.

However, as institutions increase flexibility in course scheduling and add options that better meet learners’ needs, they must take equal care to eliminate options that have not paid off for students.

Institutions need to commit to the strategies they believe work best rather than offering a bottomless buffet of incongruent choices out of fear of doing the wrong thing. Not only is too much choice overwhelming, it can also lead to situations where courses don’t fit together in coherent sequences to provide clear paths to completion.

It’s imperative that institutions retain structures that help learners efficiently progress toward a degree. Colleges have worked hard over the past five-plus years to build guided pathways that ensure credits add up to a meaningful credential, and they should continue to do so. Student-centric alternative calendars should provide flexibility in how students take courses but also strong guidance and structure around what courses they take and in what order.

Finally, institutions should pay careful attention to the formats that meet learners’ needs and eschew options that could work on paper but not in real life. No student wants to drive to multiple campuses on the same day or take morning and evening classes on campus. Course pathways must be aligned and compact to help students’ classes fit around their lives, not vice versa. Collecting learner feedback and analysing historical student registration patterns is one way institutions can ensure that the schedule is a vehicle for, rather than a needless barrier to, completion.

As needs change, colleges must continue to evolve in order to support student success. Redesigning the academic calendar, whether by adopting eight-week semesters or other proven innovations, is one way to do that. But institutions shouldn’t just chase the shiny object and make changes simply for the sake of novelty.

Instead, they should rethink calendars across all their programmes to support best practices that are more responsive to learners’ needs. This process needs to be intentional, cohesive and holistic, removing options that don’t work for learners and replacing them with more efficient and relevant pathways to a credential. This work is a critical step toward meeting two important promises of the American Families Plan: that all students can attend college − and that they can complete it.

Karen A. Stout is president and CEO of Achieving the Dream.

Tom Shaver is founder and CEO of Ad Astra Information Systems.

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